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Winter survival app helps ditched drivers

The Winter Survival Kit app offers emergency preparedness information, tips for staying alive during a road emergency and a variety of ways to call for help.

Whether your winter travels involve driving a few miles or hundreds, in your own car or a rental, there’s always the chance bad weather and treacherous driving conditions will keep you from reaching your destination.

Waiting out a downpour in a highway rest stop is one thing. But would you know what to do if you were in unfamiliar territory and a snowstorm or blizzard left you stranded on a side road or spun out in a ditch? 

“A lot of people are tempted to get out of their car to try and go get help or to walk across a snowy field to a house in the distance,” said Bob Bertsch, a web technology expert with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Fargo. “That’s too dangerous. You should stay in your car.”

Making the wrong decision in a winter driving emergency can have deadly consequences. And while there are weather apps such as Road Trip Weather and car accident apps such as Help, I crashed my car, Bertsch and his colleagues found no comprehensive winter driving apps on the market. So they used a grant to create a free mobile app for iPhones and Android smartphones that, Bertsch said, “gives motorists peace of mind tools so they’re less apt to leave the vehicle.”

The free Winter Survival Kit app, which can be launched by tapping a big red button that says “I’m stranded!,” has been downloaded more than 50,000 times since its introduction in late November. The app offers emergency preparedness information, tips for staying alive during a road emergency and a variety of ways to call for help.

The app includes a list of items to keep in a vehicle emergency kit and stores emergency contact information, phone and policy numbers for insurance and roadside assistance programs. If a motorist needs to call for help, the app can use GPS to identify the car’s location, call 911 and send out a group text message to a pre-loaded contact list.

“What saves lives is preparing ahead of time. So instead of sitting there typing out a message with cold fingers and draining your battery, this sends your message to everyone at once,” said Jake Joraanstad, chief operating officer of Myriad Devices, the Fargo-based mobile consulting and development company that helped develop the app.

For travelers unprepared for winter weather or unfamiliar with its hazards, the app offers some unique, potentially life-saving tools. Enter the gas tank size (listed in the manual usually found inside a rental car’s glove compartment) and the amount of gas remaining, and the app will tell you how long you can run the engine to keep warm. To make sure you don’t die of carbon monoxide poisoning while you’re waiting for help, the app’s automatic alarm goes off every 30 minutes to wake you up and to remind you to turn off your engine for a while (to save gas) and to go outside and make sure snow hasn’t clogged the tailpipe.

“Technology is great when it works,” said Cynthia Brough, a national spokesperson for AAA. “But educating yourself to what to do prior to emergency is the best weapon motorists have.”

To that end, AAA, which has a GPS-enabled roadside assistance app for members, sends out news releases with tips on preparing for road emergencies and driving in inclement weather. The organization also produces two printed brochures: How to Go on Ice and Snow (PDF) and Get a grip (PDF).

“I agree with AAA,” said Bertsch, “Preparation is the best thing. But most people don’t do a good job preparing for emergencies. And travelers sometimes don’t even know what they need to be prepared for.”

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Find more by Harriet Baskas on Stuck at The Airport.com and follow her on Twitter.